How cool would it be if you could set your tap water alight? Think of what you’d save on heating bills alone… This is one of the wonderful things that the hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ process can bring to your local community – along with river contamination, air pollution and minor earthquakes.
The process involves drilling big holes in the countryside and then pumping large quantities of water and toxic chemicals down into the rocks below. This breaks the rocks apart, releasing the shale gas trapped inside that can then be used as a fossil fuel. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, quite a lot, which is why communities living close to drilling sites have been a little reluctant to embrace the idea. A protest camp took place over the weekend at Hesketh Bank near Southport, just a few kilometres from the most recent drilling site in the UK. The camp involved workshops and talks on the science of fracking and culminated in a protest march to the site of the rig.
‘It’s bad enough in wide open spaces like Colorado in the US but in a small crowded island like the UK the effects could be devastating’
‘The main aim of this camp is to try to nip fracking in the bud before it starts,’ says Mark Lloyd, one of the protesters at the event. ‘This is a big organic growing area and if word gets out that there’s a fracking site nearby no one will want to buy products from this region.’
Although this is only the third fracking site in the UK, with the other two located just outside Blackpool, concerns have been raised by the terrible reputation fracking has gained across the Atlantic.
‘The effects of fracking have stirred up a hornets’ nest in the USA,’ says Phil Thornhill, National Coordinator for the Campaign Against Climate Change. ‘There’s been massive contamination of ground waters and aquifers, toxic wastewater being carried hither and thither causing pollution in any place there are spills; there have been instances of air pollution and in some places water has even become flammable because there is so much methane in it.’
There have been applications made all over the UK to develop further fracking sites and campaigners worry that the process runs the risk of industrializing the countryside.
‘You need a grid of hundreds, potentially thousands, of wells for fracking to be effective,’ says Thornhill. ‘It’s bad enough in wide open spaces like Colorado in the US but in a small crowded island like the UK the effects could be devastating.’
This is not to mention the physical presence of the drilling rigs themselves as well as the traffic and pollution which would affect local communities.
'All the evidence shows natural gas is being used as well as coal, which means you’re simply messing the planet up twice over'
‘The decisions to put these rigs in place has gone right over the heads of the local residents,’ says Mark Lloyd. ‘Such decisions are mainly taken at the county level and all of a sudden people have this huge rig appearing on their doorstep, which undermines any work that people are doing on sustainability or local environmental planning.’
As well as problems at the local level, fracking raises larger questions within the big picture of climate change. The natural gas that fracking releases may produce less carbon than coal or oil but it is still a fossil fuel, releasing heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.
‘We need to be finding alternatives to fossil fuels, not trying to exploit new ones,’ says Phil Thornhill. ‘Using natural gas would only reduce carbon emissions if you were using it as an alternative to coal but all the evidence shows it’s being used as well as coal, which means you’re simply messing the planet up twice over.’
Yet anti-fracking campaigners remain upbeat. There’s a feeling among activists that demonstrations like the one held over the weekend at Hesketh Bank are beginning to light the touchpaper of local resistance as well as to alert the wider activist community that fracking is a real and present concern.
‘Fracking seems to have passed under the radar somewhat but now people are starting to wake up to it,’ says Thornhill. ‘People are realizing it is happening, it is serious and it’s something that needs to be fought as the potential consequences could be cataclysmic.’